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London Film Festival 2018: Suburban Birds, Sauvage

Where does China go from here? Back, forward, around and around in circles - the flat circle of time in Qiu Sheng's Suburban Birds, where the off-kilter is commonplace, and the commonplace is so common you scarcely notice that it's so off-kilter. A landscape of lines and structures, defined by figures and measurements, gives way to one of tangled, indefinable emotions and juvenile whimsy in this aimless, slightly surreal yarn in which every character seems constantly in search of something just around the bend, and just around the next bend etc. Alas, the audience is left in search of something similar - a purpose that never quite materializes, a sense that Qiu is about to reveal his hand and make something distinct out of otherwise opaque content. He never does, and the sense that sticks is less that Suburban Birds' purpose is just around the bend, more that it's entirely non-existent.

The curious quasi-abstraction that seeps into the film to the point of tiresome frustration toward the end is only one element of a movie that's frequently fascinating, even if that fascination stems from questions that remain resolutely unanswered by the time the credits roll. Those credits yet occur over one of Suburban Birds' most compelling scenes, and there's such a wealth of intriguing stuff in here that the overall feeling of inconsequentiality is all the more disappointing, though the movie itself is all the more enjoyable, naturally. The opening 20 minutes are beautifully made, all striking compositions and fine, deep-focus cinematography; the sense of actions being guided by something beyond the characters' control or comprehension is also most beguiling. Qiu evidently has a strong, bold creative streak guiding himself, but he currently appears to lack adequate appreciation for how to communicate that as eloquently as it doubtless deserves to be.

Felix Maritaud in Sauvage

Nothing nearly so abstract in Camille Vidal-Naquet's Sauvage, although this too is a movie that promises much more than it's capable of delivering. In the case of this title, it's less in the execution of the concept and more of the concept itself - I went into Sauvage hoping for something more original and more accurate than the standard media depiction of the homeless gay male prostitute, and came out of it still hoping, perhaps that some other title, somewhere down the line, will oblige.

Principal to this movie's problems is its prudish approach to its subject, a quality that isn't immediately apparent, but that becomes increasingly so as it's made clear that Vidal-Naquet isn't intent on exploring any new or particularly perceptive angles on this character's story. In spite of being introduced as a figure quite at ease with the nature of his work, if seriously endangered by some of its tenets, lead character Leo is dragged through a narrative that seems to punish him for his openness, for his lack of inhibition, only finding any real modicum of sympathy for him when he expresses himself with the kind of compassion that Sauvage itself never actually does. Leo becomes a tragic figure trapped in a problematic rut, a casualty of his own inability to conform, rather than of society's inability to accept him. Full credit to Felix Maritaud, who's rarely out of frame, and who accomplishes all that's required of him, but it's a commitment I'm not sure it was worth taking.

Londoners can catch both Suburban Birds and Sauvage at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival, where they're currently screening; the festival is on until Sunday the 21st of October.

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